CoolData blog

17 December 2009

There’s no such thing as wasted time

Filed under: Coolness — Tags: , , , , — kevinmacdonell @ 3:13 pm

Well, OK, yes. There is.

Watching television, drinking heavily, and engaging in certain varieties of web-surfing are negative time-sucks.

I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about positive time-sucks, about wasting time in a way that subtly sets us in a new direction.

It happens when we’re busy, when the pseudo-emergency we’ve been handed fails to focus our attention. Or it happens when we’re not as busy, when the spectre of culling paper files looms, or the bony hand of data entry beckons.

At such times we can check email and Facebook compulsively, or we can complain long and loud with our office-mates around the coffee pot. These are energy-sucks and morale-sucks as well as negative time-sucks.

By ‘negative’ I don’t mean ‘bad’. I like email and Facebook and television and alcohol and cute cat videos on YouTube. Indeed I do!

But sometimes we need to take a step outside the circle of where we are, and explore a little. We need to waste time productively.

Not productive in the sense of ticking things off our to-do list. I mean deep-productive, as in discovering new directions, better ways of doing things. Mostly or entirely by accident. Like real research, which to me means unfocused, going in all directions. Chasing after things that catch our interest, things that are cool.

We can watch a TED talk, or sign up for a webinar on something unrelated to what we’re “supposed” to be doing, or read an article that has nothing to do with the Priority du Jour – just because there’s something neat about it. When we’re too busy for any of that, we still need to keep a notepad nearby to capture ideas that occur to us spontaneously whenever we lose focus.

It’s at times such as this, when our vision is not focused, that cool thoughts form.

This is how I’ve seen it go again and again. An idle thought or a stray idea will somehow grow, connect with other stray bits, and solidify into something useful: A new way of doing things, or a whole new thing to be doing. Whether it’s creating a new process at work or changing the path of your life, the process is the same. The grit in the oyster around which the pearl formed was always nothing more than a distraction.

While the very opposite has happened to the top priorities of just a year ago. Ah, where are they now?

It’s not that workers in my profession – prospect research – can or ought to resist the directive to produce that 10-page profile for a surprise meeting with a Very Wealthy Personage, that terribly important emergency that produces no result whatsoever, not even a call report.

Check your job description – it’s in there. And it deserves your full, undivided attention until it’s done.

The point is that we should learn to value the shreds and scraps of time in between. Down-time is not the time for busywork, it’s the time for creativity and growth which is by nature undirected. An unwavering focus on priorities means you’re always looking at your feet; once in a while you have to shine a flashlight into the darkness ahead.

Just one example.

One day I was handed a funny little book with a blue cover. I read it. It was interesting, but it didn’t seem to relate to my work at the time. I read it again – it was cool, and I figured I could do it. It was “Data Mining for Fundraisers,” by Peter B. Wylie. It took years of bumbling around, and some gentle prodding from Mr. Wylie himself, for the vague idea of data mining to find an application in my work. Now it’s part of my job description, and gaining ground as accepted practice at our institution.

Not every vague idea finds application. I’ve got a folder full of “what about this” stuff. The point is this: Your basket of vague ideas comes first. The problems, needs, applications will follow someday. Trust me.

This is my last post for the year, so I’ll leave you with one next action, and one motto:

The next action is to create some way to capture your stray thoughts and ideas. Could be scraps of paper in a folder, a notebook, a mind-map on your computer – whatever. Something you can review periodically, in order to connect today’s mental noodling with tomorrow’s real needs.

And the motto is: “Nothing that is cool is truly useless.”


1 Comment »

  1. […] I got sidetracked (which, btw, reminds me of Kevin Macdonell ’s excellent blog post “There’s no such thing as wasted time“), and instead of putting together something for my research summary on the donor management […]

    Pingback by Jennifer Schmidt Olomon » Finally have the time to look for a new home — 9 June 2010 @ 2:16 pm

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